Western Kentucky’s first-ever Conference USA Tournament game went deep into the Biloxi, Miss., night. And the Hilltoppers came out on top.
In a contest that started at 10:31 p.m. Wednesday and ended at 1:46 a.m. Thursday, the Hilltoppers defeated Old Dominion 7-4 at MGM Park to advance to the second round and remain in the winner’s portion of the bracket.
With the win, No. 4 seed WKU (26-27-1) will face No. 1 seed Florida Atlantic for a scheduled 7:30 p.m. start Thursday. The Hilltoppers had the same time slot Wednesday, but with two of the three prior games going into extra innings, the first pitch was bumped back three hours.
“When you play the last game of the day you never know how they’re going to handle what we’re up against,” coach John Pawlowski said in a news release. “We didn’t know how late we were going to play, but that’s typical tournament baseball and we responded very well.
“We played hard, pitched it well and played good defense, and whenever you do that you have a chance to win.”
Starter Reece Calvert set down the first two Monarchs (35-20) of the game but allowed a solo home run to Vinnie Pasquantino that gave Old Dominion an early 1-0 lead, which held until the bottom of the fourth.
Monarchs starter Nick Pantos hit designated hitter Richard Constantine with the first pitch of the inning, then C-USA All-Freshman center fielder Jackson Swiney singled to right field to put a pair of Hilltoppers on base.
Catcher Matt Phipps and third baseman Sam McElreath followed with RBI doubles to give WKU a 2-1 lead. First baseman Jack Wilson came up with a two-run single to push the advantage to 4-1 and increase his two-out RBI total to 18 on the season.
The next hitter, left fielder Ray Zuberer III, took a hanging 1-2 changeup from reliever Michael Blanchard over the fence in right-center field for a two-run home run and a 6-1 lead. It was the 10th homer of the Owensboro native’s career, including his sixth of the season, five of which have come in the past 14 games.
Constantine then led off the fifth with his seventh homer of the year. It was a solo shot for the junior from Huntsville, Ala., to push the WKU advantage to 7-1. It was the second homer of the game against Blanchard, who had not allowed a home run all season coming into the contest.
After blanking Old Dominion from the second-to-fifth innings, Calvert allowed a leadoff walk and RBI double to Pasquantino and was pulled for reliever Jacob Green. Although the righty allowed the inherited runners to score on a pair of wild pitches, the Hilltoppers escaped only giving up two runs as their lead stood at 7-3.
Lefty Dalton Shoemake started the seventh and gave up a pair of hits – including an RBI double by Bryce Windham to cut the lead to 7-4 – but that’s all the damage the Glasgow native allowed the rest of the game. He set down the final eight Monarchs in order, racking up a career-high six strikeouts in the process for the three-inning save.
After the double, Shoemake did not allow a ball to leave the infield and struck out the side swinging in the top of the ninth.